She died on Mother’s Day, with her son by her side. It was sudden and shocking and we are bereft.
I feel like a rat trapped in a maze. Life needs to be lived, so I get up in the mornings and I live it on that very specific plane of existence where laundry gets done and kids get picked up and dinner gets cooked. But then I’ll turn a corner and bam. I hit the wall of her absence. And it hurts.
Two days ago, it was when Annie got her haircut and I started to send the picture to Sue, who is her godmother.
Today, it was five seconds ago when I typed that sentence and used the word “is”.
I remember this from when my grandparents died in the car accident. Hitting the wall of grief. I know that as time passes, the walls get padded, and hurt less. And that one day, they won’t hurt when I hit them. They’ll send a cascade of love and gratitude over my heart, that I knew her and loved her and was loved by her.
But not yet.
The walk through grief is just like any other journey. No way out but through. And something else: the amount of pain in the hole she left in my heart is directly proportional to the amount of light she was in our lives, and will be again, once we get past this part.
In the meantime, we do the sacred work of sorrowing.
This week, one of our own, Pat Haneef, lost her husband. The Haneef family has been such a wonderful part of my life, that I wanted to take a moment to honor Pat, who has been such a great support to me through some difficult times in my life, and to honor Tayyiba Haneef-Park, a beautiful, strong mama who was a teammate of mine at Long Beach State and whom I have loved watching in the Olympics, as they mourn the loss of their larger-than-life husband and father, Mo Haneef.
Tayyiba and I were teammates only for one year at Long Beach. I was a 5th year senior during her redshirt freshman year. Even though their daughter was redshirting, Mo and Pat came to every single match that we played. My career at Long Beach was a short one, as I was a transfer during my junior year, had to redshirt that first year, then was short on units and ineligible to compete my 4th year. My 5th year, I had to fight to earn a spot on the court, then fight to keep that spot. Sometimes I succeeded; sometimes I didn’t. But one constant memory that I have of that year is seeing Mo’s smile after each match. He was always down on the court with us, congratulating us, and giving me words of encouragement. No matter how down I was or how frustrated I was, Mo’s smile was infectious. He encouraged all of us. He was as big of a cheerleader of mine as my own parents were.
When I watched Tayyiba compete in the Olympics (2004, 2008, and 2012, she rocks, you guys), I remember seeing Pat and Mo up in the stands, cheering those ladies on. I remember the pride in his eyes as they won silver medals in both 2008 and 2012. My husband fondly remembers chatting with Mo at the Long Beach State alumni events, which he and Pat faithfully attended, even when Tayyiba couldn’t attend. And even still, all these years later, Mo continued to encourage me as a woman, as a mother, and as a person.
There are so many more aspects to this wonderful man’s life, some that I have only learned about since his passing. He was an amazing Track and Field coach who inspired thousands of young athletes here in Southern California. He was also an accomplished basketball player, playing for Northwestern University, as well as professionally in Italy. But one thing is for sure, he was loved by all who knew him, and will be sorely missed.
I ask you, again, our faithful readers, to join me in prayers and well-wishes for our sweet Pat, Tayyiba, and Tayyiba’s brother Arshad. While I would never assume to know “exactly” what they’re going through, I know that the days, weeks, and months ahead will be filled with grief and sadness, as well as laughter through tears as they mourn the loss of their husband and father. Pat, Tayyiba, and Arshad, we send out our love to you, and know that our prayers will be with you through the difficult times.
Feeding our babies looks different for lots of different mamas. To close out August, Breastfeeding Awareness Month, I’d like to share my story with you.
My first daughter, Mazie, was born in January 2011 and nursing came extremely easy for both of us, even though she had a traumatic birth. From the moment she came out, though, she suffered from colic. The only, and I mean only, thing that would calm her down for the first 5 months of her life was nursing. So, she and I sat up in our house for hours every day, nursing. And she grew. By her 3-month appointment, Mazie was in the 97th percentile for height and weight. She was huge! And she had those great baby rolls on her legs. Her belly protruded out and she had a quadruple chin. And I was proud… not only of her, but of myself, too. I grew this baby in my stomach, and now I was nourishing her into being a 6’4” volleyball player (someday).
I nursed her everywhere, too. No one ever asked me to cover up or leave. Maybe it was the look on my face that just dared them to say something… because I was prepared to get big and loud. Instead, people complimented me. They encouraged me to keep up the good work. Friends, family, and even strangers commented that Mazie was growing so big because, “she’s a breast-fed baby,” and so healthy because, “mother’s milk is best.” And my heart soared.
Mazie nursed until she was 18 months old. And truthfully, I think she would have nursed for longer, but I was 6 months pregnant with Violet at the time and Mazie didn’t fit on my lap anymore.
Violet was born in November 2012. And unfortunately, the first year of her life will always be wrapped up with the last 6 months of my father’s life. Less than two weeks before Violet was born, my dad went into the emergency room for the first time, suffering complications from his chemotherapy. He had gotten down to about 140 lbs and the chemo wasn’t working. As his treatments got stronger and he got weaker, the cancer grew.
Those of you who have experienced the loss of a parent know the sense of desperation that comes as you watch that parent slip away slowly, day by day. It was such a strange time because the emotions in my heart couldn’t have been more opposite. I had a brand new, perfect, wonderful little baby, and I was watching my father die. While I tried to keep those emotions separate, at Violet’s 3-month appointment, her pediatrician labeled her as “failure to thrive.” Failure.
Despite my best efforts to compartmentalize my emotions and to still feel the joy of a new baby, the grief and fear of losing my father were taking their toll. My milk supply began to dwindle. I was failing my baby. I drank Mother’s Milk tea. I loaded up on milk production supplements. I read up on old wives’ tales, drank a Guinness a day, tried to pump… all to no avail.
Now before you jump to my defense, let me assure you that my intellectual, rational mind knows that this wasn’t my “fault.” I know that sometimes, life happens. But as I looked at her skinny little legs, her scrawny arms, her petite stature, my emotional mind thought that I should have been stronger. I wanted desperately to nurse her back to healthy. But as time passed, and her weekly weigh-ins continued to show no weight gain, I had to face the fact that I needed to supplement, then ultimately replace her nursing with formula.
In May, the day before her 6-month birthday, my dad died. And two weeks later, I had my final nursing session with my sweet baby. She began to eat solid food. And she drank only formula.
Because I had gotten so much support from others nursing Mazie, whenever I bottle-fed Violet in public, I felt so ashamed. If people were so proud of me for breastfeeding, would they think less of me for feeding my baby formula? I hated putting that powder in her bottle and shaking it up with water. I found myself explaining to people, complete strangers, that I wanted to nurse her, but I had lost my milk in my grief. In that time, I lost so much.
But time kept right on going, just like it always does. I had to learn what our new lives looked like. There were days that I thought of the part in Sleepless in Seattle where Sam tells Dr. Marsha Fieldstone, “Well, I’m gonna get out of bed every morning… breathe in and out all day long. Then, after a while I won’t have to remind myself to get out of bed every morning and breathe in and out…” There were many times that I forgot to take formula and bottles with us when we left the house and I had to make a quick Target detour en route to wherever we were headed. There were (and still are) times when I wished I could just nurse Violet to calm her down. And there were times that I was grateful that I could just hand her a bottle in her stroller and let her fall asleep. But no matter my feelings of guilt or frustration, I continued to do what most of us do… I did the best that I could for my baby.
Although my story might differ from some of yours, I’m writing it to let other mamas who struggle with nursing know that you are not alone. I’m writing to tell you that people might be judging you for putting that powder in the bottle. But YOU know that you’re doing the best thing for your baby. Stand strong in that, as I have learned to do. I’m writing to tell you that even though you feel like a failure, you aren’t. Maybe I’m writing to tell myself that, too. Because I so desperately want to STILL be nursing Violet right this very moment. It is such a magical bond that I feel like I missed out on with her. It’s almost enough to make me want to have another baby. Almost.
I’m also writing to tell you (and me) that Violet is perfect, with or without nursing. On her first birthday, our pediatrician took her measurements, hugged me, and said, “Our girl is thriving!” And I cried. Really hard. And she still thrives. She is quite the opposite of her sister in nearly every way. She is small; at 22 months, she still fits into some 12-month skirts and dresses. She is dark; I often joke with people that she is a little fairy changeling, or, if you’ve read the Mists of Avalon, she’s of the Old Blood and maybe will be come Lady of the Lake someday. She is loud; if she is unhappy about something, she will let you know, and she’s not kidding. But just like her sister, she doesn’t look at me as a failure. She just sees her mama who loves her. She holds my hand and plays with my hair, and when she is sleepy or hurt or sometimes just standing in the living room, she says, “I need you, Mommy.”
Last weekend I completely stepped out of my comfort zone and, at the age of 38, performed the Argentine Tango in my first dance recital.
Here’s how it all came about. A very good friend of mine is a professional ballroom dancer. In fact, he and his professional partner recently came in 3rd in the world in an international competition in Amsterdam. I met Jaime when my husband bought us West Coast Swing dance lessons for Valentine’s Day before we had kids. Since then, Jaime and I have danced on and off, just for fun, in my living room and have become dear friends. This last October, we were talking about my birthday and how I was struggling with the recent loss of my father.
“Remember the part in the movie Evita when the couples are dancing the tango, clinging to each other in their sadness after her death?” I asked him one night. “Can you just come and dance with me? Can I just cling to you and cry and tango?”
Without a second thought, Jaime said to me, “I’ll do one better. I will choreograph a tango and you and I will dance it in honor of your father at the studio’s showcase in January.” I sobbed.
Now, let me represent my Long Beach State Volleyball girls and say that I can dance… up in the nightclubs. If you were out dancing on Second Street in Long Beach some time between 1995 and 1998, we probably danced together, especially if you were at Belmont Station. You would have noticed us, me and my 6 foot and above teammates. But let me be the first to tell you that dancing out there is WAY different than dancing in the ballroom. Way. Poor Jaime. There’s probably nothing worse than trying to get the nightclub dancer out of a girl. And to be honest, I didn’t realize just how much I really needed to learn.
The first day that I came to the studio, it was pouring rain. Jaime was waiting in the dance room, dressed in slacks, and a vest and tie. He began teaching me the Argentine Tango and I cried. A lot. Over the next weeks and months, we met every Wednesday. Every Wednesday he showed up for me, taught me, let me cry, and demanded my best, for me and for my father.
Luckily I understand what my body is doing, but at almost 40, it can be hard to make my knees do what I want them to. When did start to move like an old lady? My favorite thing that Jaime says to me is, “Ok, do it again, but this time don’t make it look like you’re in pain.” Damn it.
All week long I had been filled with emotion: love for my dad, sorrow for missing him, gratitude for Jaime’s friendship, nervousness for wanting to do well. Saturday night, when I couldn’t sleep, I found Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 on television. Near the end, as Harry is preparing to face his enemy, he is surrounded by his parents, and others, who have died. He looks at his mother and says, “Why are you here?” and she looks at him with love and says, “We never left.” I looked into the darkness, hoping to see, perhaps, my dad sitting in the leather club chair across the room. I whispered, “Are you still here, too?”
Sunday was our big day. With perfectly coifed hair and gorgeous makeup, I stepped onto the dance floor with my darling friend. We danced to “Milonga del Angel” by Astor Piazzolla, a beautifully sad and mournful tango song.
Fast, sharp, explosive steps and kicks, followed by slow, passionate accents and movements, characterize the tango itself. I can still hear Jaime’s voice from rehearsals, “Slow, slow, quick, quick, up… and… fast, swivel, swivel, swivel, stop!” And so goes the dance of grief. There are times of rage, of desperation, of explosive pain; and there are times of quiet sadness, of nostalgia. And it’s often surprising to me how intertwined they all become.
So I had my dance. I had my Evita moment and clung to my partner in sorrow. And it was life-changing. My family and my friends, who have been so unfailingly supportive the last eight months, surrounded me once more. And by becoming vulnerable, by opening my wounded heart for others to see, I invited in healing. I invited in love. By allowing them to carry me through the hard days, I find the strength to carry on. And I was again reminded that love goes on living, long after the body dies.
And to Jaime, thank you. Thank you for your generosity of spirit. Thank you for your grace and elegance. Thank you for your professionalism and your amazing talent. And mostly, thank you for sharing all of that with me, dear friend. I love you.